The reason why conducting a piece of research can leave you with more questions than answers lies in the fact that research consultants themselves find it difficult to agree on the most effective way to carry out research.
Psychological profiling is a method whereby researchers attempt to pin down people’s behaviour patterns, taking into account the many factors that may affect their behaviour. For example, the time of day or month, motivation or need state, or the situations consumers find themselves in, may influence behaviour.
Psychologist Dr Tamsin Addison, managing director of research and data mining company Decision Science, says: “Profiling is not to do with looking for personality traits. We are looking for key motivators. It may be that we behave in one way when it comes to one product and in a completely different way when it comes to another. For example, a consumer may be keen to explore different experiences but would not be prepared to stray away from the tried and tested when it comes to buying a car.”
Although Addison’s view requires research more advanced than the average focus group, it certainly makes sense. Problems arise, however, because many researchers either believe psychological profiling is not all it is cracked up to be or, conversely, claim that their research methods are psychological profiling methods when they are not.
Addison contends that unless those involved in psychological profiling are, if not psychologists then at least people with some formal knowledge of psychology, what they are doing is not the real thing.
The problem with the “real thing” is that it is difficult to pin down. Addison claims that a research tool which can be bought as a package is unlikely to provide real psychological insights. At the same time she won’t talk about the processes used at Decision Science, as this would give away the company’s competitive advantage.
She adds: “Psychological profiling is not something that can be taken off the shelf, like geodemographic profiling, and applied in a standard way to a set of data. It needs to be developed for each market and with each particular brand in mind.”
Addison may be something of a purist, and there are many researchers who believe that the behavioural research they are conducting is achieving results. What is clear, however, is that the trend towards research solutions based on the psychology of behaviour is part of what Morpace International director of brand and communications Tom Reid describes as the move away from “agenda-based” research.
“Since the Fifties, different research approaches have tended to reflect the different beliefs of marketers. Procter & Gamble would have one set of beliefs and Unilever another, and their research (c) approaches would mirror their respective beliefs. So market research has tended to be driven by how clients see the world in general. Because problems have always been identified in clients’ terms, research has always been undertaken on that basis, using only clients’ vocabulary.
“The result has been that companies all ask the same questions, get the same answers and end up manufacturing the same products. Now they are asking why this is. The result has been a move away from agenda-driven research and a desire to find out what is actually happening in the world.”
Reid is much more keen on ethnographic research, which investigates the ways in which people behave in their own environment, and how they interact with the world around them. So it could involve a researcher observing a family at home (although the observer’s presence probably doesn’t encourage natural behaviour) or watching how women choose clothes in a retail outlet.
Reid says: “Ethnographic research is emphatically not about pursuing a client-driven agenda. Even psychological profiling, to some extent, is questionnaire-led.
“Today’s market researchers need these anthropological skills to enable them to understand and translate the hidden – and not-so-hidden – messages which their subjects reveal. Fewer questions, fewer clipboards, and more waiting and watching. The new breed of market researchers, and their informants, will be setting their own agendas in future.”
Reid says psychological profiling “is a step in the right direction”, but is still too much a systematic observation of people.
Another take on behavioural research comes from Wendy Gordon, a partner at consultancy The Fourth Room. She calls it “context-bound need states”.
“My reservations about profiling a group of people who buy a brand are that the profile inevitably represents all sorts of different personality types. Brands like Mars, Coke or Barclays, for example, have so many millions of customers that it would be impossible to define a personality type for the typical consumer,” says Gordon.
Instead, says Gordon, researchers need to acknowledge that the
“triggers that cause behaviour are context-bound rather than personality-bound”. These are what she calls “need states”.
The problem arises, says Gordon, when clients define various target clusters and then still insist on marketing to the whole market. “For example, Marks & Spencer is able to define a variety of different clusters, and then instead of choosing specific clusters and concentrating on targeting them it decides it wants to target all the clusters – you are back to mass marketing.”
One client that has made use of need states is frozen pizza manufacturer Schwan’s. Its principal brands in Europe are Chicago Town Pizza and Freschetta.
Schwan’s European brand controller Ben Johnson has been responsible for initiating a number of usage and attitude surveys among frozen pizza consumers after he discovered, when he joined the company three years ago, that the only research available to him was basic demographic information.
He says: “There were no real insights into people’s need states, so we looked at the frozen pizza market and segmented it psychologically. We looked at people’s need states and then tailored our products to satisfy those need states.”
Johnson claims the insights from this research, which he calls psychographic profiling, has helped to increase Schwan’s European market share by value from 12 per cent to 25 per cent, second only to own-brand labels. He also says that Freschetta, launched two years ago on the basis of this research, now commands five per cent of the market.
Why not what
Yet another version of the new non-agenda-led research movement is the Social Values Groups (SVG) system, based on the theories of humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow. This system groups people according to their beliefs and values. The SVG system is not hugely popular with Addison, who calls the technique “really neat and useful, but a mental short cut”. It is used by The Database Group, whose head of consumer and analysis, Jonathan Roberts, says: “Lots of organisations know what people do and what they buy, and are getting better at understanding when they do these things. But we still don’t understand why people do things.”
Roberts claims the strength of SVG is that it recognises the fact that people’s lifestyles and attributes change over time but their values are unlikely to change. And if their values do change, they do so at a much slower rate.
“Political values are a good example: William Hague joined a political party when he was 16. Since then, everything about his life has changed – income, marital status and so on. But his values have not changed. If you compare him with Tony Blair, their attributes are very similar in terms of income and marital status, but their values are completely different,” says Roberts.
Noticing that people’s attributes change over time is not a unique (c) insight, or indeed a surprising one. But Roberts says that by understanding people’s values, you understand “how they tick”, and he believes this knowledge constitutes a far more stable basis from which to have a relationship with customers.
The value of values
Roberts also says that an understanding of people’s values has implications for the way you communicate with them. “Too often people say that a piece of communication, such as direct mail, was not relevant to them. I think that a lot of the time the communication was actually relevant to them, but it was not couched in the right language, because no one understood that consumer’s values.”
If market researchers do not agree on the best methods to get under the skins of consumers, at least the common thread in all these techniques is the desire to get away from pre-programmed research, in which clients hear exactly what they want to hear. This move towards a more realistic vision of how consumers really behave does seem to be client-driven, rather than consultancy-driven. By contrast, Gordon claims that the ubiquitous focus group has remained prominent because “a lot of market researchers make a lot of money from doing focus groups”.
Instead, as Reid says, some larger clients are saying that all they hear from much research is “the echo of their own shout”. It is these clients, he says, that will be the real drivers of change in market research as they become increasingly weary of being presented with the same research results year after year.